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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

What Makes a Hostel Great
Paul Otteson

A fair chunk of the e-mail we get here at Hostels.com has to do with the quality of hostels—good, bad, and ugly. Sometimes, readers want to make sure we know about a great experience they had with a friendly staff, spotless bunkroom, or cool travelers. Occasionally, we hear that a place is no better than a flophouse or den of thieves.

But what is it, exactly, that makes a hostel great? Having heard countless opinions from other travelers and slept in too many hostel beds to remember myself, I'll give it a shot—though, obviously, my preferences may not match yours.

Most hostels have something important to offer, the most basic being that they exist at all! Hundreds of cool destinations across the globe have only one hostel. Hundreds more need one. Simple presence, however, isn't enough for greatness. That requires one or more of the following features:


This may sound like something that hostels have no control over. People come, people go. How can a hostel control how friendly and fun a particular group will be? Yet the essence of a great hostel is in the spirit of the hostellers who stay there. Well-designed and managed hostels can do a lot to bring out the natural ease, joy, and camaraderie of hostellers. What do I like to find when I come in the front door? Easy:

1) Friendly Staff—I've seen bored indifference and even bitter disdain at the occasional front desk. There's nothing like a cold welcome to get you off on the wrong foot. On the other hand, a welcoming and helpful staff can make you feel right at home, like you are a valued member of a cool community,

2) Homey Common Areas—While I know that the actual layout of the building can make it difficult, even small rooms can be inviting. Seats can be comfortable, walls can feature art and maps, room layout can encourage conversation, and there can be easy access to resources, games, books to trade, etc. The rooms themselves don't matter—it's their role as the birthplace of friendships and cooperation.

3) Freedom—Many hostels impose rules and restrictions because of security and safety concerns, limited staffing budgets, and the organizational morality that favors curfews for young travelers. I understand, but I certainly prefer hostels with fewer rules, more maturity, and free access.

4) No Crowds—When you finally fall asleep, the fact that your bunkroom is bursting at the seams with snoring comrades doesn't matter. At all other times, an overfilled hostel is depressing. Why does it happen? An owner might make the case that it's a service to welcome more hostellers-in-need. I might make the case that it's about money. Regardless, no overcrowded hostel has ever achieved greatness for me.


I step out the door and see an alpine vista, crashing Atlantic waves, the Golden Gate Bridge… ahhhh! Some hostels are almost automatically great by virtue of a fantastic location. It's not always just the wonders outside that make the difference. Often, a great location seems to influence the attitudes of staff and hostellers alike, adding to the excitement and making people smile.


By "distinction", I mean that special something that sets a hostel apart. It's the equivalent of location, only involving the hostel itself. Perhaps the building is an old castle, lighthouse, or mansion. Possibly it's known as a center for climbers, cyclists, hikers, or partiers. Maybe the facility features a fabulous dining hall, huge fireplace, inviting hot tub, splendid games room—or even just really nice showers! Whatever it is, having something that sets it above the standard institutional dorm helps a lot.

Fortunately, hundreds of hostels have something from the list above—some heart and character. Indeed, a surprising number of hostels feature all three. There are plenty of true gems out there.

In the end, though, greatness in hostels is pretty personal. You may be bored at a seaside villa and inspired in a suburban box. Chances are, though, that if you have the humble spirit of a true hosteller and planet wanderer, you'll find greatness wherever you go.

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com